Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Quaker Ontology

What it boils down to is, what does it mean to be a Quaker?

Mark quite rightly called me on name-calling. I said "But here I am, gettin' pissed off. And not against small-minded, homophobic, hate-filled, cling-to-guns-and-bibles, fire-and-brimstone Christians." My intent was to say I was not getting angry at our typical liberal strawman, the evangelical. And I should point out that I was not saying "Christians are small-minded, homophobic, filled with hate, cling to guns and bibles, and spout fire and brimstone." I'd say none of my self-identifying Christian friends exhibit any of these qualities.

So why was that name-calling? Because I was conjuring up a sub group of Christians, identifying them, and then smearing them. I was doing the same thing the Outgoing Occupant has done in defining our countries' enemies as "terrorists." I was simultaneously creating an identity group and tarring it wholesale.

"Name-calling" is a weird phrase. I call all kinds of things by name, not all of them names they had before (I've been reading Roald Dahl's The BFG to our son and am greatly enjoying the BFG's wholesale creation of new words for things like snozzcumbers). But calling something by name is different than name-calling. Or is it?

When I decided to request membership the Society of Friends, I was asking to be recognized with a name, Quaker. I was accepting that I was growing into being part of an identity group. Membership is a formal process, but it usually reflects a longer informal process of becoming. The question is, though, what are we becoming? That's where a lot of the current sturm and drang comes from, I think. At least that's the root of my sturm and drang.

I don't believe I am becoming a Christian. I am in an environment, both in my marriage and in meeting, where I am in communion with Christians, but I do not identify as one and am uninterested in being identified as one. Now, I have absorbed much of the story, the teachings and the example of Jesus, but I have absorbed a lot of other stories, and I do not wish to privelege Jesus's stories above others I find meaningful, nor his life, nor his teachings.

And I do not like feeling I must define myself as a "non-Christian Quaker," any more than I like being labeled a "non-theist." Which is about as much as a Christian Quaker would like to be defined as a "non-secularist" or a "non-humanist" or a "non-snozzwangler." No one likes to be defined by a negative, at root. And yet here we are, Protestant (protesting against the Roman church), non-theist/a-theist, secularist (not sacred) type people. I like being able to say I am a Quaker. I plan to keep saying it.

Well, probably I plan to. Here's the problem for me: by naming myself part of this identity group, I risk making membership in the group more important than truth. I think this is a risk in any group, and indeed any naming: we name something, or measure something, and then we apply the name or measurement back onto the thing itself. It's a basic human trait, certainly not particular to Friends, but it's one that especially in other conversations on this blog I am growing to recognize as inherently destructive of perceiving truth.

In this instance, we are Quakers because we say we are Quakers. We come together. But then we try to ferret out what exactly we have in common as Quakers. Once we have decided that, what happens when one of our number, or we ourselves, deviate from that definition? We are forced (or force ourselves) to get back in line, or are shown (or show ourselves) the back door.

And why is this? What makes this happen? I think it is, simply, human nature. We form groups. We want to reassure ourselves, through formalizing, that these groups have some basis in meaning, that they have definition. And once we are assured of this, we don't want to let it go. I've certainly seen, in myself and others in meeting, a deep anxiety over not maintaining some sort of definition. Just letting it be, letting just anybody (or any idea) in makes the experience of our community and its work somehow paler and less interesting. Emptier.

I hold this up. I've got no answer. It's a Quandary and a Query. It warrants more sitting with, I think.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Quaker Paradox

Phew. This blog suddenly had a bunch of comment traffic. Odd, isn't it, that the Quakers have more to say than the map geeks. A silent people indeed.

Mark Wutka raised a comment on my last post:
I understand that you don't want to think of yourself as bigoted, but I think you should take another look at the phrase "small-minded, homophobic, hate-filled, cling-to-guns-and-bibles, fire-and-brimstone Christians".
I responded
About my snide comment about "small-minded, homophobic, hate-filled, cling-to-guns-and-bibles, fire-and-brimstone Christians." Guilty as charged. I am bigoted against the Rev Phelps' followers, and against people who teach Hell as a way to persuade [kids] to sign on with the church, or who believe that killing an infidel is the way to heaven. Yup. May they know peace and love, and please keep them out of my family's life as much as possible.
To which Mark responded:
Does it not strike you as at least ironic that you can be so unabashedly bigoted against a particular religious group when you are so committed to theological diversity? At what point do theological differences outweigh the commitment to diversity?
My answer is, Yep. I called it the Quaker Paradox in high school, though it isn't really a paradox, but a quandary: how do you live up to an ideal of tolerating, even embracing theological diversity, when some of those you are tolerating are, in fact explicitly out to get you. Snake handlers aside, how do we deal with Reverend Phelpses? Around the time I joined, Twin Cities Meeting asked someone not to return after she made some extremely heartfelt but (to many present) hurtful and even threatening statements in meeting about homosexuality. How do we feel about pre-Columbian Aztec theology? Are we bigoted if we oppose live human sacrifice. Obviously this is an extreme example, but it does bring practice right smack up against theory.

In theory, I like to think of myself as not bigoted, but, yes, there are degrees of spiritual familiarity. Liberal Methodists, sure, I can have an extremely civilized conversation with. Mel Gibson's brand of Catholic, a harder stretch. The Taliban? Honestly no, I would not try to stretch.

The point I think needs to be made is that theology has flesh and blood consequences. If we ask ourselves and each other to live out our theological understandings, then we should expect no less of those whose theology includes heavy doses of fear and loathing. And this can in fact threaten us. Probably not as quickly as we believe it will, and probably not as much as we fear it does, but that doesn't mean there is no threat. And so we need to ask ourselves if we are willing to invite in that sort of ideology (he says as if there is a good sort and a bad sort and the bad sort is easily identifiable by its green skin and habit of saying "I'll get you my pretty!"). Are each of us actually ready to be a Mary Dyer?

I'm not. Sorry.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Gettin' ticked off for mysterious reasons

I've been involved in several conversations over the last few weeks around religious identity that end up with me full of bile. I don't think of myself as bigoted. But here I am, gettin' pissed off. And not against small-minded, homophobic, hate-filled, cling-to-guns-and-bibles, fire-and-brimstone Christians. I got into a pretty seriously angry argument with my wife, who like me is a basically happy member of a liberal Quaker meeting.

What the hey? Where on earth is this bitter anger coming from? No one's really stomped on my religious liberties lately. If anything, my respect for and understanding of honest, deeply felt personal religious faith has grown a lot over the last few years.

But when the question turns to whether we as a community identify as Christian, my dander mysteriously rises like hair on the back of a dog in the seconds before an earthquake.

What on earth?

A clue: in my argument with my wife, she felt the same feeling of personal threat, only in her eyes it was me telling her she wasn't allowed to express her beliefs. So it's not simply a matter of feeling trapped by the patriarchal hegemonizing colonialist bully-boy politics of evangelical theology. (Did I get all the key words in there? I feel like I've forgotten one. Oh, right, I forgot to weave the word "power" in there somewhere.) It's personal, not institutional.

Another clue: What struck me initially as I really try to get hold of this anger is how much it feels like not being picked for the middle-school softball team. Now, some of the language some religionists use to discuss matters of group identity are explicitly about "you're on the team bound for heaven; they're didn't make the cut and are going to hell," but that is not the case here. In fact, in all the discussions in my family, in Friends meeting, among friends, there is an explicit statement like "we're all on the same team here, and we don't believe in Hell, and the afterlife is an open question, and we love and support each other." But somehow following this up with a question like "What's our team song?" sets off some weird stuff.

Yesterday, Ingrid mentioned what to me felt like a sharp wedge cracking into what's going on: she was observing how, from a kind-of-Buddhist sensibility, we all hang on to our sufferings. If someone has done us wrong, we remember it, tenaciously. We make it part of ourselves.

Now, I was not raised oppressed. No secret churches under threat from the secret police for me, no razzing at school for wearing religious paraphernalia (not sure what paraphernalia I would have worn anyway—gold question mark on a chain?). My parents tsked and winced at televangelists and crazed imams, but we were not the Madalyn Murray O'Hair family in any sense. Secular, but not crazy. Heck, my parents met at a Unitarian church and were happy at my getting some sort of religious background at my high school.

So what kind of suffering am I remembering? And what am I getting so mad at now?

I think it has to do with trust.

Here's the thing: the biggest freak-outs I can remember having have to do with physical trust exercises: the kind where you stand up on a platform and fall backwards into the rest of the team's outstretched arms. Or where you have to get the team members up and over a tree limb. The last time I tried one of these was back in high school. Freshman orientation, actually, so I was 14. And I just freaked. I lost it. I don't remember all what happened, but there were tears, and as I recall, I was the only one who really freaked this way.

I am lousy at situations where I can't put my feet on the floor, metaphorically or literally speaking. I hate swimming in over-my-head water. I hate being on the edge of a roof. And apparently, I need to keep my own feet under me religiously as well.

I absolutely see that being able to off-load your troubles/trespasses/moral compass to another is very helpful. I visit in prison, and have seen repeatedly how getting religion helps ground folks, gives them a sense of not being out there on their own. I think Jesse Ventura was profoundly messed up when he talked about religion as a crutch and preached the gospel of self-sufficiency. None of us are self-sufficient, but some of us are better than others about giving credit for being held up.

But there's a point at which, to me and a lot of other folks, there's such a thing as too much faith, too much off-loading of responsibility. The Ben Franklin mantra, "God helps those who help themselves" comes to mind. Or the joke about the man who trusted in God to help him win the lottery, only to be dressed down from above for not actually buying a ticket.

So what the heck has this to do with me being pissed off at Christians? Or my wife being pissed off at secularists?

Simple. We don't trust others to hold our spirit up. We don't want to put much of our weight onto a foreign spiritual language, or a foreign set of stories and theologies. We my love our neighbor, our fellow member of Meeting, our spouse even, but we need to feel our own feet planted under us.

When someone asks us to name their religious basis as our own, they're in essence asking us to do that trust exercise where everyone sits on everyone else's laps, in a circle. Except that it feels to each of us like everyone else is sitting on some pretty unstable ground. When we're being Universalist about it, we can shrug and be philosophical about other people: you stand on your self, I'll stand on mine, and we'll each take our chances and love each other just the same.

But when it comes right down to it, we like our own foundations, and we're not interested in jumping off them. Which is what making a statement about universalism feels like to some, about Christianity feels like to others.

No answers to this one, folks. Just a survey of the landscape.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


I'm on the same morris dance team(s) as Douglas, but I've only occasionally gotten a glimpse at what he does in his day job, which is as a philosopher of science at the U of Minnesota. I can't remember how the subject came up, but my interest was greatly piqued when he mentioned his talk this summer in Brazil (PDF here), on naturalization as a type of error, specifically in biology. Naturalization is essentially what happens when a statistical norm (e.g. two sexes) becomes seen as "natural," and conversely exceptions to that norm become "unnatural."

Douglas uses a few examples: sexual duality and the entirely "natural" exceptions to that statistical norm; the idea of competition as the basis for natural selection (again, a common factor in evolution but apparently originating as a "natural law" in nineteenth-century views of human nature); the transition of exceptional anomalies in human development ("monsters" in popular usage) from atypical "wonders" into being seen as "abnormal" and therefore "mal-formed."

Then he hits us with (to my mind) the big one:
The difference between anomaly and abnormality is basically the difference between pattern and expectation. Similarly, the error with male-and-female is primarily expecting intersexes, hermaphrodites and polysexes to fit the male/female categories because those categories are, or seem, pre-established. In our competitive culture, who is positioned to recognize competition as anything but an expected foundational principle? The errors, then, are ultimately not just about sex or development or natural selection. They are all about expecting nature to adhere to strict rules. That, in turn, is based on assuming a fundamental and enduring universal order. This expectation itself represents, I contend, yet another naturalizing error: the very concept of laws of nature.
Douglas argues essentially that we have created unchangeable laws of nature where there may be no laws, that the very idea of laws is rooted in our cultural or more generally human biases.
Recently, historians have profiled the cultural and religious context that guided the origin of the modern/Western concept of laws of nature (Steinle 2002 [also an interesting read; it's available in part here]). Here, I want only to draw attention to how powerful a hold the concept of laws of nature has on our minds. The very language is highly charged. In human society, laws specify what we ought to do. They ensure social order. We tend to interpret laws of nature in the same way, as guaranteeing the natural order. Laws of nature profile how nature should act. Once established, descriptive laws take on a prescriptive character. Pattern becomes expectation. This is how local regularities, or the familiar, or the "normal," become naturalized.
I think this relationship between description and prescription (or proscription) reflects on the earlier discussion of "the grid."

And on a lot of other notions of ordered systems.

Profound stuff. The whole paper bears a close reading. Thanks Douglas.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


Tobin Harshaw in the NY Times, takes on the questions of political pragmatism vs ideology, surveying current blogosphere opinion on the subject in light of the coming Obama presidency. An interesting read, paralleling faintly some of my earlier thoughts on the nature of "usefulness" in the context of eugenics. Harshaw opens with a quote from Christopher Hayes in The Nation:

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, “pragmatists” of all stripes–Alan Dershowitz, Richard Posner–lined up to offer tips and strategies on how best to implement a practical and effective torture regime; but ideologues said no torture, no exceptions. Same goes for the Iraq War, which many “pragmatic” lawmakers–Hillary Clinton, Arlen Specter–voted for and which ideologues across the political spectrum, from Ron Paul to Bernie Sanders, opposed. Of course, by any reckoning, the war didn’t work. That is, it failed to be a practical, nonideological improvement to the nation’s security. This, despite the fact that so many willed themselves to believe that the benefits would clearly outweigh the costs. Principle is often pragmatism’s guardian. Particularly at times of crisis, when a polity succumbs to collective madness or delusion, it is only the obstinate ideologues who refuse to go along. Expediency may be a virtue in virtuous times, but it’s a vice in vicious ones.

There’s another problem with the fetishization of the pragmatic, which is the brute fact that, at some level, ideology is inescapable. Obama may have told Steve Kroft that he’s solely interested in “what works,” but what constitutes “working” is not self-evident and, indeed, is impossible to detach from some worldview and set of principles. Alan Greenspan, of all people, made this point deftly while testifying before Henry Waxman’s House Oversight Committee. Waxman asked Greenspan, “Do you feel that your ideology pushed you to make decisions that you wish you had not made?” To which Greenspan responded, “Well, remember that what an ideology is, is a conceptual framework with the way people deal with reality. Everyone has one. You have to–to exist, you need an ideology. The question is whether it is accurate or not.”


Guest Post: Keith Harrison

Keith Harrison is an emeritus professor at Carleton College. My wife (who was an English major) took a class or two from him, but my only connection with him was doing the poster announcing his convocation "How to Stop Your Papers from Killing You (and me)"... Which I of course missed. But a few weeks ago I was visiting our friends the Heimans in Northfield, and discovered they are publishing a book by Keith based on the concept he was then developing, which is essentially an attack on Everything You Ever Learned About Writing School Essays: the "hourglass" model, removing sense of personal voice, outlining first... provocative stuff. Mark Heiman was looking for notes, so I took it home and read the proof, and realized I had erred badly in missing the convo. I wrote to Keith and told him what I thought, and he responded with what amounts to a blog entry. So with his permission I'm posting it here:

The Subj/Obj opposition has puzzled me since the time I heard an English teacher call a poem by Shelley ‘a subjective lyric’. I couldn’t understand what he meant, and said so, and learned nothing from his reply. Much later, reading Bronowski and Polyani, and a host of others, I got thinking about it again. I believe (especially since Heisenberg) it’s a pseudo-distinction, and certainly in the humanities a useless pis-aller. Whether in cartography or poetry I believe all we can do is to give versions of that part of the world which takes our attention. In spite of what many scientists actually assume in their practice, if not in their belief-system, there’s no god’s eye view of the world. We are not (at our best??) cameras, for reasons that should be transparent to anyone who thinks a little about it. Scientists hate that thought because it ushers in the dreaded C-Word as Murray Gell-Man puts it. What in the hell do we do with consciousness, which is after all the most fundamental fact of our being here? The answer that scientists often give is that you have to regard it, as Freud does the mind, as an epi-phenomenon of the body. Or, in the case of Crick, you dismiss the question as trivial. Generally speaking, you’re better off to forget about it and get on with the "real work". The trouble is that, as writers, we can’t do that because it doesn’t make sense. We are here and we have to tell stories - all kinds of stories - about what we experience. Part of my brief is that because we have been trained to think of ourselves as non-persons and because we have tried hard to do that, the result is the kind of prose that pours out of our colleges by the truck-load. In most student-essays there’s nobody home and when you ask the simple question— where did this dogma of ‘impersonality’ come from?—it’s not possible to find a satisfactory answer, except: we have always done it that way. But if essays are really forms of narration (stories), questions of accuracy inevitably arise. Why is my version of the auto bail-out more accurate than another’s? Or less? Interesting questions. Not, I would maintain because mine is more objective (whatever that means) but maybe because it has a wider explanatory range, because it is more consistent with many other ‘explanations.’. Consistency does seem to be a key, but clearly not a self-sufficient one (people used to be consistent about phlogiston). I could go on but will stop (on this question) with this: there seems to me nothing wrong with either a scientist or any other person declaring him or herself to be a largely ignorant person trying to make a somewhat intelligible "version" of one part of the world we all live in. Yet our dominies, our Strunks and Whites, and the greater part of our professoriat, would argue very strenuously against that assumption. We must tell the truth, be objective etc. There’s always the ghost in the machine, even when we take God away. The belief is very powerful. Someone must know the truth. It’s got to be there. Doesn’t it? Even Dawkins fall for the delusion.

Now for something provocative. I’m more and more convinced that beneath all our professional ‘belief’ in objectivity, five-paras, the forbidden ‘I’, and on an on, is a deeply entrenched commitment to the status quo. In other words that commitment is based a political belief which is almost invisible and, because of that, all the more powerful. This is the elephant in the room. We have taken our binary oppositions (heredity v. environment, nature v. culture) so much for granted that we’ve become stupefied and stunted in our thinking on very important matters. When one considers the brief given implicitly to most student writers, but NEVER examined, it goes something like this: You don’t know much about the recent history of Madagascar but your task is to write about it AS IF you do know something about it (you will get the vast bulk of your knowledge from sources, of course) and AT THE SAME TIME you should write as if you are not a person and must never use the first person. The brief is doubly incoherent at root. No wonder students hate writing essays but being, essentially, survivors they will find the best way to get under the wire. The most common practice is to string together a series of ‘quotes’ (properly acknowledged, of course) and to try to give the impression that the essay has an author, but not really, because the ‘author’ doesn’t really know anything. One can hardly imagine a more futile dry loop, a more complete waste of time. To ‘succeed’ in this exercise requires an imagination as dense as that of George Bush or Bill Kristol or Larry Summers. It’s main driving power is an unflinching commitment NOT TO THINK.

Against this ‘method’ of writing a paper I would propose the following. Get interested, get very interested in a topic, put yourself on the line as you think about it. Work. (If you can’t find a topic please do something else. Anything. But DON’T start writing until you are really involved.) Stand firm in your own partial knowledge, ask real questions. Use you genuine ignorance as your strength. Explore. Use quotations to help shape your own ideas, questions, puzzles. This is your essay it cannot be written by your sources. Use your essay as an authentic exploration of a question which matters to you. Remember that most teachers cannot write. They have been trained to think in very proscribed modes for reasons which become clear as you think about the whole purpose of education which, in the words of our some time Governor, Arnie Carlson, is to produce ‘successful units for deployment in the economic sphere.’

You were surprised by my ‘weird’ ideas on outlining. Another reader was delighted to find that it’s okay to use the first person in an essay, a third felt relieved that it’s alright to end her essay at the end and not at the beginning as she usually does. More questions: what do the words ‘alright’ and ‘okay’ mean in these sentences? More still: a university is a place where we should ask questions, sure. But not questions about sacred matters like this, or patriotism, and on and on.

In the teeth of all the conformism I have found in fifty years of teaching I want to join in the exciting task of helping students be authentic persons, in whatever they do. We (all students) have to give ourselves permission to be alive, questioning, foibled, ignorant, occasionally savvy, always fully ‘here’. Bloody difficult task. Our systems have made it an almost impossible one. Most schools have a corpse in the basement, and another one in the brain-pan. (Another full essay needed here). To cut to the essential thought: A revolution, what Blake called a Mental War, seems necessary.

And there you have, in sum, his new book. My only comment (I viscerally agree with most of what Keith says) is to go back to objectivism (the cult of objectivity) as a way of creating common ground based in verifiable experience. Whatever the culture of science may have become (and I hope to have more to say on this soon), the basic fundamental core of science is the idea of repeatable experiment. And the idea of objectivity comes out of this sense that if I drop two cannonballs from the Tower of Pisa, from the second of planet Foozbain, or the top of Mount Doom, they will land on the ground at the same time, regardless of their varying mass. This skeleton of "verifiable facts" seems to me to be the basis of the whole shooting match: the langauge of cartography, the voiceless essay, journalistic objectivity...

It's all pidgin, and placed against the previous context of a common language based on divine and miraculous explanations for things, it makes a lot of sense. It makes conversations about practical matters possible for a broader range of people. The trouble comes when we start wanting to insert lyrical, subjective content into this pidgin, because that content is adamantly non-repeatable. Conversely, we can get in trouble if we hide behind "objectivity" in order to get our selfish way (see Woods' critique of cartography).

And when we insist that all discourse be carried out under this rubric, even when what we are talking about doesn't need the pidgin to be able to cross a cultural divide, we (as Keith points out) stifle real creative work, which needs to be carried out by a whole person, not just the part that can be translated into pidgin.